Who was Lieutenant Frederick Ernest Whitton and why was he chosen to help sort and classify the British Army records of the Great War held at Isleworth?
Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, was a veteran of the Leinster Regiment, various staff/intelligence positions and Assistant Secretary of the Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence between April 1911 to September 1913 according to his entry in the 1922 Army List. He served at the War Office in the role of Secretary to the War Office History of the War Committee between January 1919 to March 1922 (see 1922 Army List. HMSO : London. p. 255 and The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/9306 Appointment of Lt. Col. F.E. Whitton C.M.G. as Secretary, W.O. Ctee. on History of War: Urgent Postal Telegram (transcript) (January 1919)). Aside from his experience as a staff officer and with the Committtee of Imperial Defence, he was also ‘p.s.c.’, passed staff college at Camberley (according to his record in the surviving Army Book 83 for the Leinster Regiment his ‘p.s.c.’ was announced in Army Order 10/1905, see The National Archives WO 76/24 Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians). pp. 52-53). Whitton had the connections and experience to help with the work required after the War in classifying and sorting information from the many thousands of tons of British Army administrative records which had been sent back from the various units and headquarters, The work was thought to beneeded for both the Official Histories by the Military Branch of the Historical Section C.I.D. and to help officers writing revised training/operations material to reflect the lessons learned during the War. Whitton was also a writer on military history in his own right, producing volumes such as the editor/compiler of the 1924 History of the Leinster Regiment, a book on Helmuth Von Moltke in 1921 and a 1917 publication on the Battle of the Marne.
In the report of records destroyed at Arnside Street we have a single mention of Whitton’s work (C1 was the division of the War Office to which Whitton and his section were attached):
‘…C 1…Colonel Whitton’s reports…’
(National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list). p. 1)
What was Whitton’s role in classifying the ‘Administrative’ records of the British Army from the War, as opposed to the ‘Operational’ records (War Diaries etc.) collected and sorted by the Military Branch, Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence under Sir James Edmonds?
The need for the War Office to appoint an officer to index the War Office ‘Administrative’ records for the C.I.D. was first set out in a meeting of a sub-committee on the Committee of Imperial Defence on the History of the War (The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/9308 RECORDS: War Diaries (Code 21(B)): Collection of administrative data for History of the War 1914-1918. Question by Treasury as to duplication of work: Committee of Imperial Defence, Official History of the War Sub-Committee, proceedings October 23, 1918. pp. 2-4). The appendix clearly sets out what the C.I.D. thought were administrative records:
An edited and slightly expanded version of the list was circulated by Whitton’s committee on 21 February 1919 as Office Memorandum 1142, under the title of ‘Collection of Administrative Data for The History of the War 1914-1919’. A copy of the memorandum can be found as here. Topics such as censorship and Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps were added, plus a statement that information relating to 1914 was a priority.
The following material all comes from The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/9308 RECORDS: War Diaries (Code 21(B)): Collection of administrative data for History of the War 1914-1918. Question by Treasury as to duplication of work – date and references as per transcription.
The first item is a defence by Whitton of the need for and progress made by the Committee in the face of Treasury and some War Office criticism of the need for a separate unit to do this work. The Treasury was worried throughout the Committee’s life that Whitton and his colleagues were duplicating work being undertaken by the Military Branch of the Committee of Imperial Defence, whereas Whitton was always at pains to point out that he was helping to index the material to make it available for those writing instructions and later historians.
The following letter issued by the War Office on the 10th March 1919 further explains the records required by the Committee to index for the Committee of Imperial Defence on the administrative, as opposed to the Operational side. The appendix is a greatly simplified list of headings compared to the earlier Office Memorandum. The compilation of the central card index for this material is also mentioned without naming Whitton.
The following minutes from the file further explain the importance of Whitton’s work, particularly as supported by General Ellison, the Deputy Quartermaster General. The Isleworth, Percy House Schools repository is also mentioned and the fact that the C2 section (then known as Disposal of Records Section, subsequently R (Records) will have around 4,000 tonnes of records to sort through. It is also made clear that whilst C2 under J.R. Nelson lists records, Whitton’s Committee is attempting to meaningful index the records (under subject headings, see here). The last minute from Sir James Edmonds of the Historical Section C.I.D. makes absolutely clear the difficulties of putting together a reliable administrative history without testimony from the officers involved, with the bringing together of detail from many different files difficult (often leaving gaps) and less satisfactory than testimony from an expert present at the time.
The following comment and transcript is based upon documents from The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/9307 Reorganisation of Historical Section, War Cabinet. Establishment of Historical Department in War Office: Historical Record of the 1914/18 War: Notes from F2 on work of Colonel Whitton’s section (15 – 16 February 1921).
By early 1921 against the background of continuous cuts to the War Office Whitton’s section according to a very critical note from F2 (part of the financial directorate of the War Office) was again under attack from the Treasury as well as parts of the War Office. Aside from cost the criticism amount to a plea relating to Sir James Edmond’s earlier memorandum. The necessary military documents incorporating knowledge gained during the War could be written from first hand experience and that there was neither time nor money to wait for Colonel Whitton to produce card indexes or precis. It is also noticeable that Sir James Edmonds is said to have stated that the work of Colonel Whitton was not necessary for the Official History, partly perhaps based on the need to make sure that were funds there were for historical work related to the Great War was concentrated on the Military Branch of the C.I.D. Whitton according to the 1922 Army List left the War Office on 31 March 1922. We do not know the scope of Lieutenant Colonel Whitton’s reports and no mention is made of his Card Index, unless it was part of the finding aides mentioned as being lost in the Arnside Fire. It is possible that some of Whitton’s approach to précising details were incorporated into R (Records) indexing of administrative records from the Great War.
The figures given below in tons of War related records held at Isleworth are also instructive. In 1921 there were 2,500 tons held at the Percy House Schools versus 1,900 tons (including service records) according to Hampden Gordon at Arnside in 1935 ( Hampden Gordon (1935) The War Office. Putnam: London. p. 273). The figure for War Office records (which were probably not stored in any number at Isleworth in 1921) of 1,500 tons is also instructive, with Hampden Gordon stating that by 1935 the number of War Office registered files dating from the Great War had been reduced from 10 to 3.5 million (Ibid. p. 264). Although the weight of the War Office files must have gone down with the reduction in the number of these files we do not know by how many tons. However the fact that by the time of the Arnside Fire in September 1940 Arnside was capable of holding the Great War service files and a long list of War Office branch files and records shows the tremendous work of sorting/weeding undertaken since 1919.